As we come to the end of this year and begin the new, it’s a good thing to take stock — to take inventory and evaluate: How did you do this year? How could you do better in the year to come? How are you different than you were a year ago? How could you change in the coming year?
We hear a lot about the difficult, challenging times we live in. There is a lot to be concerned about: moral decay, growth of the non-religious category, sluggish economy, global climate change. We’re poised on the edge of the fiscal cliff.
So I thought it would be good to look at what God had to say to some people going through difficult, challenging days. Peter wrote a letter to Christians who were being persecuted and pushed to the edges of society — “strangers in the world,”a Peter called them, “exiles,”b “aliens, scattered”c to various far-flung places because of persecution (1:1). [aNIV(84), bNIV, cNASB]
The political and religious climate had begun to shift so Christians were experiencing more trouble than before. Many of them had “to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1:6), Peter said, and were being “tested by fire” (1:7).
So Peter wrote to encourage them, to help them through the tough times. He reminded them that the difficulties were worth it because God had chosen them for something better. He wanted them to remember that they had an inheritance waiting for them in heaven (1:4) — that the goal of their faith was the salvation of their souls (1:9).
You see, when the world gives bad news, God gives Good News. What will you do with those two options? We have choices to make. In this new year, it would be good for us to choose God’s way: but we have to plan to do something; we must plan for action.
If you don’t plan for action, then you’re really planning for no action. If you don’t plan to do something, then you’re really planning to do nothing.
Some people go through life reacting to things instead of planning for things. They react to what happens rather than plan to make something happen.
There’s an unconfirmed story told about the Prussian king, Frederick the Great, traveling across the land. Outside a small village, he saw a wooden fence with several targets painted on it and a bullet hole right through each bull’s eye. Frederick halted his entourage and sent orders into the village that the marksman who had shot the fence should be brought before him. “I have never seen such remarkable shooting,” he told the man. “Why are you not in my elite troops?” The man, trembling before the great king, confessed that he had shot the fence first and only afterward painted the targets around each bullet hole.
This is how some people plan: they shoot at random and make whatever they hit their target. But that doesn’t work in the army — and it won’t work in life. So the question is: what are your targets this year? What do you hope to do? To change? To become?
Here’s what Peter wrote to those people who were facing some particularly difficult times…
1 Pet 1:13-16a
13 Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
Peter wrote to encourage them to hold steady and not give up. Persecution is probably not something that most of us will have to deal with. However, Peter’s message is a word for any believer facing uncertain times.
It’s a good word as you step into the uncertainty of a new year. We don’t know what events will come — good or bad. It’s good advice on how to deal with personal challenges — we will all face some kind of test of faith. It’s encouragement for the church as society becomes more secular and more godless. We need to stand strong and remain committed to live as we should no matter what.
What does Peter tell us to do? (1) Prepare your mind for action; (2) Be self-controlled; (3) Focus on grace; (4) Don’t be shaped by evil desires; (5) Be holy in all you do.
1. Prepare your mind for action.
The literal phrase is the original language of the NT is: “gird the loins of your mind” (see KJV). We don’t use the word loins much anymore unless we’re talking about a cut of meat — like pork loins. Technically “loins” refers to the hip and waist area — and in ancient times when men wore long bathrobes, their long clothing would slow them down or hinder them from peak performance if they were running or working or doing battle.
So the phrase “gird up your loins” meant to gather up your long robe and tuck it into the belt around your waist so you could move freely and quickly. It meant “get ready to run…to fight”; so it became an expression meaning “to prepare for something requiring strength or endurance.” Today we might say, “roll up your sleeves” to communicate the same idea: “get ready.”
So how do you prepare you mind for action? I think Peter was saying that unless we’re careful, our minds can become cluttered with a lot of junk that can weigh them down. If we want active minds — if we want a vibrant, relevant faith — then we have to clear out the clutter.
Get rid of the things that weigh you down — things that trip you up and slow you down, things that get in the way. You wouldn’t run a race wearing snowshoes, so why would think you can live for God if your mind is cluttered and weighed down with worries, burdens, and too many obligations?
Jesus said when we’re weighed down with burdens, we should come to him because he promises to give us rest (Matt 11:28). He helps us with our burdens so we can do better: “take my yoke upon you” (11:29).
That’s the other half of Peter’s phrase — prepare your mind for action! In tough times, when we face spiritual challenges and society is drifting away from God, we should not do nothing. We should do something!
What’s needed in these days is clear heads, clear-headed thinking, an ability to discern the truth and to recognize those things that are important and necessary.
NLT says simply: “Think clearly.”
I always thought I could handle emergency situations with clear-headed thinking. I thought I was pretty good under pressure. I thought that until I was sitting alongside the highway with an engine fire in a motor home I had borrowed from my friend Ken. I was cool enough to spray the extinguisher on the engine. I was still in control when I called 911. But when the fire truck didn’t get there right away and the flames started licking up inside the dash and melting the windshield, I called 911 again. The operator answered: “911” and I shouted back “911!” So the operator repeated “911,” and I hollered louder “911!”
What we need these days are cooler heads and less panic. We should prepare ourselves for action.
2. Be self-controlled.
Peter is simply saying that when we face tests and trials in life, we need disciplined lives. Just as an athlete is disciplined for the big game or the musician has practiced for hours before performing, Christians need to be disciplined.
KJV: “be sober”; NASB: “keep sober in spirit”; ESV: “being sober-minded”; TEV: “keep alert.”
There are two ways to be self-controlled or sober:
(1) Literally, to refrain from excessive behavior (drunkenness, over-eating, over-indulgence, binging on pleasure) — a disciplined, self-controlled life would monitor diet and habits to keep behavior in moderation. Moderation is a good way to live — avoid excess.
(2) A second way to understand “self-control” is figuratively, meaning to maintain balance. One commentator (William Barclay) writes about this passage: “…they must be steady in their minds. They must become intoxicated neither with intoxicating liquor nor with intoxicating thoughts; they must preserve a balanced judgment.”
What are intoxicating thoughts? I imagine them to be thoughts that control us instead of us controlling them. Intoxicating thoughts manipulate and consume us. Intoxicating thoughts cloud our judgment until we’re living in some sort of fog.
If you wore green-tinted glasses, it would color everything you looked at. In no time at all, you could look at green-tinted paper, and it would look the same as white paper. If you wear tinted glasses, you lose your ability to distinguish colors accurately.
It’s the same way with ideas or thoughts. Intoxicating thoughts are “colored” in a certain way so you lose your ability to discern right from wrong.
For instance, a lot of people chase after all sorts of spiritual fads — the latest thing, a new doctrinal twist, a popular idea. If you fall under the influence of spiritual fads causing you to neglect the foundational core of your faith, then you need spiritual sobriety. Binge theology focuses on one thing and excludes other important things people.
Martin Luther said that bad theology is like a drunk man trying to mount a horse: he can’t stay upright on the saddle because he always goes too far and falls off the other side of the horse.
3. Set your hope fully on the grace to be given you.
Depending on grace sounds like a contradiction to “prepare…for action.” But Peter is not saying “either/or” — he’s saying “both/and.”
Grace does not cancel out the need to prepare or to be self-controlled. Grace does not eliminate spiritual disciplines.
But by the same token, preparation and self-control do not cancel the need for grace. Obedience to God’s commands without grace may be good works, but they do nothing for our salvation. Good works can never be enough to pay the penalty for our sin.
On the other hand, grace without obedience — without our response — leads to unsurrendered lives where anything goes. Jesus asked his followers, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). Jesus wants us to surrender to his lordship, to his authority in our lives.
Paul asked the Roman believers, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” [“Are you kidding? Seriously?”] (Rom 6:1-2). Grace is not a license to sin. It’s God’s supernatural resources available to us to give us the power over sin. Grace conquers sin.
In other words, grace leads to action. If someone tells you that you’re rejecting grace by doing something for God, let me assure you that’s not true. Doing something for God is the proper response to grace.
In fact, if we didn’t set our hope fully on God’s grace, we couldn’t prepare our minds for action and we couldn’t become self-controlled.
But notice the specific kind of grace Peter refers to: it’s grace yet to come; it’s grace we haven’t even tapped yet; it’s grace that will be given to us when Jesus Christ is revealed — when Jesus returns.
Some feel like they’ve exhausted God’s patience and used up all the grace he has available for them. They feel undeserving or unworthy: “How could God love me? After all I’ve done? I’ve failed him too many times.” If you think that, then you’ve got more to learn about God’s grace.
When I was 21, I bought an old VW bug for $150 to drive around Europe for a summer. I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t come with a gas gauge. (How could a gas gauge not be standard equipment? Why would it be optional?) So I was always concerned about running out of gas. I’d try to calculate how many miles I could go on the 10 gallons I bought, and then I’d fill up before the odometer reached that number. I spent a summer driving around Europe like that. Then I sold the car for $90 at a flea market outside of Amsterdam. One of the guys who looked at the car (and who obviously knew more about VWs than I did), said, “Oh, it has a reserve gas tank.” What? Then he showed me a small lever on floor of the car. “When you run out of gas and your engine begins to sputter,” he explained, “you flip this lever and you have two extra gallons to get to a gas station.” I drove from June to August worried about running out of gas when all along there was a supply I never knew about.
There is a supply of God’s grace that we don’t really know about! How many feel like you’ve tapped out on God’s grace — that you’ve drained God’s reservoir dry. And yet there’s a supply you never knew about. God’s grace keeps coming. He poured out his grace on Calvary. He extends his grace again and again to each one who comes to him. The Bible says his mercies are new “every morning” (Lam 3:23); his grace keeps coming to us every day. And there is still more grace to come!
God says to you what he said to a struggling, disillusioned apostle named Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
So it’s because of God’s grace that we can prepare our minds for action and be self-controlled.
I recently read an article by Don Whitney, an Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky called “Ten Questions to Ask at the Start of a New Year,” which I thought was particularly insightful.
He writes: “The beginning of a new year is an ideal time to stop, look up, and get our bearings. To that end, here are some questions to ask prayerfully in the presence of God.” I’d suggest that you take his questions home and think carefully about each one. Meditate on them. Pray over them. Take the time to write something down for each question.
This can be part of the process of “girding up the loins of your mind” — of preparing your mind for action in the coming year.
1. What’s one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God?
2. What’s the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?
3. What’s the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life this year?
4. In which spiritual discipline do you most want to make progress this year, and what will you do about it?
5. What is the single biggest time-waster in your life, and what will you do about it this year?
6. What is the most helpful new way you could strengthen your church?
7. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year?
8. What’s the most important way you will, by God’s grace, try to make this year different from last year?
9. What one thing could you do to improve your prayer life this year?
10. What single thing that you plan to do this year will matter most in 10 years? In eternity?
He offers more questions to consider, but I think that’s enough for right now. He says these questions can help not because they are so profound but simply because they bring an issue or commitment into focus. After you write down your answers, consider how you might take action for each answer. What will you do? When will you do it? How will you evaluate it?